Returnees, unaccounted combatants, child jihadists: Germany struggles with the ‘foreign fighter’ phenomenon

Ever since the Islamic State group began to lose the territories it had so spectacularly conquered during 2013 and 2014, analysts and policy-makers in the West have warned of potential large-scale return movements of so-called ‘foreign fighters’.

40,000 ‘foreign fighters’

Although the term ‘foreign fighter’ is vacuous with respect to international law, it still permeates both public and academic discussion and has become the basis of important repressive resolutions of the UN Security Council.1

In popular parlance, the label is used to refer to the volunteers from outside Syria and Iraq who joined the Islamic State and other Salafi-jihadi groups on the Levantine battlefields. Widespread estimates put their number at roughly 40,000. Most of them are men; but in contrast to other groups such as Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State has also managed to attract a sizeable number of women, as well as entire families.

Diverse profiles

According to intelligence sources, Germany has seen the departure of over 900 citizens and residents who have joined jihadist groups. Most of them are the children or grandchildren of Muslim immigrants from Turkey, the MENA region, or from the Balkans. Nevertheless, they still diverge considerably amongst each other with respect to their social status, ranging from thugs with a long criminal record to highly-educated medical students.2

Moreover, the Islamic State’s propaganda appeal has extended across traditional ethnic or religious milieus, attracting many ethnic Germans who converted to the group’s particular brand of millenarian violence.3

Limited number of returnees

As of now, 300 men and women have returned; for another 145 individuals there are indications that they may have perished during the conflict. This, however, still leaves the majority of cases unaccounted for.4

Aside from a limited number of high-profile cases, the number of German fighters arrested by Iraqi or Syrian authorities appears to be limited. A few more individuals seem to be in Kurdish custody, such as 31-year-old Nadia Ramadan who recently spoke to a journalist from the Zeit newspaper. Ramadan – who was born in the small town of Landshut in Lower Bavaria – pleaded with Chancellor Angela Merkel to arrange for her return to Germany.

In a video message, Ramadan described her situation as “unbearable”. In particular, she asserted that her two young children (whom she had had with another German fighter in Raqqa) were suffering from the physical and psychological impact of the constant warfare and required medical care.5 Reportedly, the German consulate has been in touch with Ramadan to arrange her return to Germany.6

“I’m not dangerous at all”

The difficulty for security services lies in assessing whether returnees do actually pose a threat – or whether they are disillusioned and have abandoned jihadist ideology. In her video message, Ramadan sought to stress the latter: “You don’t have to be afraid of me at all”, she asserted, “I’m not dangerous at all and not a terrorist, I’ve [just] made a mistake and come here.”7

André Taubert, head of the ‘Legato’ initiative in Hamburg that offers counselling and exit perspectives to men and women from a Salafi-jihadist milieu, sees statements such as Ramadan’s as mostly credible: “returnees are definitely not all violence-prone monsters but above all young, disillusioned people who have made a grave mistake and might go to prison on that account”.8

Taubert thus wants to avoid “blanket stigmatisation” of former fighters; a stance that might seem overly lax to many commentators: they warn of “sleepers” who only pretend to re-assume a normal life in Germany in order to strike out later on. In this view, returnees will pose a “threat for decades”.9

Reasons for low incidence of return

The relatively low number of returnees has also been linked to the fact that those who had joined the Islamic State group – either as fighters or in order to live in the ‘caliphate’ – might not dare to leave: desertion is, after all, punishable by death.10

Taubert sees this – coupled with the lockdown of the area around Raqqa by Kurdish forces – as the main reason why especially male fighters are not able to stage a return attempt. He also asserted that the number of foreigners killed either in combat or through shelling might be much higher than the current estimated death toll of 145 individuals.11

Another hypothesis asserts that foreigners might try to disguise themselves as refugees and hide in IDP camps in Iraq and Syria. Local authorities are trying to detect any potential jihadists among the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. On the one hand, this task might amount to the proverbial search for a needle in the haystack; on the other hand, however, it appears conceivable that German fighters might struggle to blend in with the local population.

‘Child jihadists’

Finally, the cross-cutting appeal of the Islamic State to all ages and genders has meant that there are also considerable numbers of children and young adults who have either joined the group or been born under its rule.

Hans-Georg Maaßen, President of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz, recently warned that experiences and traumas of years of warfare, coupled with the “Islamist socialisation” undergone in the ‘caliphate’ may yield “a new jihadist generation” ready to strike upon their return to Germany.

The year 2016 had witnessed some violent acts committed or attempted by very young perpetrators: a 15-year-old girl had knifed and injured a policeman in Hanover; two 16-year-olds had attacked a Sikh prayer room in Essen, and a 12-year-old had planned a bomb attack on a Christmas market in the town of Ludwigshafen.12

Do ‘foreign fighters’ even matter (all that much)?

All in all, then, while security services in Germany and elsewhere have ceaselessly warned of returnees, their ability to assess the level of threat they pose appears limited. The oft-predicted wave of returns has so far failed to materialise for reasons that remain somewhat murky; and while this might be good news for the German intelligence community insofar as there are fewer individuals to worry about, it also makes former fighters even harder to trace.

What is more, the diversity of the adherents of the Islamic State – in terms of background, experiences, and ideological commitment – means that general statements about the nature of these individuals and their present outlook are exceedingly difficult to make.

To complicate the picture even further, some analysts are now arguing that it might not be returnees who pose the most serious threat at all, at least in the short- to medium-term. Instead, they argue that frustrated foreign fighters – i.e. those who did not manage to join the jihad in Syria (and who, given the collapse of the caliphate, will most probably no longer get the opportunity to do so) – are a more immediate challenge.13

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  1. For an overview of the status of ‘foreign fighters’ in international law, see the excellent volume edited by Andrea de Guttry, Francesca Capone, and Christophe Paulussen, Foreign Fighters under International Law and Beyond. The Hague: Asser Press, 2016.